It's here. May, that holy month among devout bass anglers that marks the beginning of another season spent in search of the elusive and aggressive bronzeback, has finally arrived. Are you ready? (May 2010)
Thanks to catch-and-release ethics and a number of other factors, Minnesota fisheries are producing more -- and bigger -- bronzebacks. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
It's getting close. It is nearly time to hit the water for those super-charged smallmouth bass. I've pursued this great species across North America, but it's awfully hard to beat Minnesota for superb smallmouth fishing. As catch-and-release becomes more and more prevalent and global climate change lengthens the growing season, smallmouths have been increasing in both size and numbers in many Minnesota waters. Not only are the smallies big and numerous, they bite well all summer. Just as nice is the fact that you'll often have these great fish to yourself as others pursue more popular species.
To help narrow your choices of where to tangle with the mighty smallmouth, here are nearly a dozen diverse lakes and rivers to consider. Some are large and well known, while others are smaller, overlooked gems. All are great places to battle bronzebacks.
Let's start with one of our largest smallmouth honey holes. Rainy is an impressive 220,000 acres, and much of it is excellent smallmouth water. And even it you just focus on Minnesota's 54,000-acre portion, you have several years' worth of water to explore, with hundreds of miles of shoreline and dozens of islands. All these islands, points and bays also mean there is generally some protected water to fish on Rainy, even when winds kick up.
Saginaw, Hitchcock and Kempton bays are all fairly wind-protected, and they have good smallmouth water. Many of the numerous islands farther out in the lake also have excellent smallmouth habitat around them.
However, many Rainy Lake bronzebacks are more mobile than they are in other lakes, due to the pelagic (open water) forage on which they often feed. This means you'll need to move around to find active fish; don't automatically expect to catch smallies in a spot just because it was good last week, or even yesterday.
Boat landings on the west end near International Falls allow easy access to as far as Soldier Point. To fish the east end of Rainy, accessing it via Kabetogama and Namakan lakes is better. For information on Rainy Lake lodging, guide services and houseboats, contact the International Falls Chamber of Commerce (800-325-5766 or www.rainy-lake.org). Voyageurs National Park maintains many primitive campsites on Rainy. For a map of the park that marks campsites, call the U.S. Park Service (218-283-6600).
This beautiful wilderness lake is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, though much of the U.S. portion is open to motor use and can be fished by day-trippers. And at 22,000 acres, Basswood has plenty of water to explore. The lake has miles of rocky shorelines and dozens of islands and bays that support good-sized bronzebacks. Two large bays, Pipestone and Jackfish, were historically known for their big pike, but they are also productive smallmouth water nowadays. The numerous reefs between Washington Island and United States Point are also excellent. Because Basswood has both ciscoes and rusty crayfish, many summer smallies will be found 20 to 30 feet deep pursuing ciscoes, while others will be in shallower rubble areas feeding on the abundant crayfish.
You can access Basswood from several adjacent lakes, but the two main entry points are through Fall Lake and Moose Lake. A Forest Service permit is required in the federally protected Boundary Waters, but it's well worth getting one for the outstanding fishing and pristine environment.
BLACK DUCK LAKE
This North Country beauty isn't nearly as well known as Rainy Lake or Basswood Lake. But even though more famous bodies of water overshadow it, Black Duck also offers quality fishing. This 1,200-acre lake is in St. Louis County, a few miles east of Hwy. 53. It has oodles of smallies, but walleyes and bluegills get most of the attention on Black Duck. This leaves smallmouth fans with plenty of unmolested fish. In fact, the International Falls DNR office says smallmouths are "extremely abundant," with some reaching 20 inches.
Because Black Duck is relatively shallow compared to many other northern lakes, much of it is suitable for smallies. This is especially true of the eastern half of the lake, which is less than 20 feet deep. Its four islands also have good potential, and so do all the shorelines that have rubble (fist- to head-sized rock). Lake clarity is about average, so morning and evening fishing is generally better than the midday bite. There's a good boat landing on the north side of the lake that usually isn't crowded. For local services see: orrminnesota.com.
BEAR ISLAND LAKE
This northeast lake has been steadily improving as a smallmouth destination. Bear Island is a scenic 2,362-acre gem north of Babbitt in St. Louis County with a healthy smallmouth population. In recent years, more anglers have been noticing Bear Island's growing quantities of fish, and last year's MDNR assessment also rated smallmouth numbers as "high." Smallmouth fan William Mason loves Bear Island, and he says that besides lots of fat 12- and 13-inchers, he catches quite a few 16-inch smallies and the occasional lunker over 18 inches. Mason does well along rubble-strewn shorelines on cloudy days, and he fishes deeper around the lake's dozen islands when it is extra-bright.
North-central Minnesota's Itasca County is home to two-dozen smallmouth lakes. One that doesn't get much attention from smallmouth seekers is Spider Lake. That's not because the smallie fishing is poor, but rather because the fishing for other species is so good. Besides walleyes, Spider's fertile 1,400 acres is home to muskies, lots of largemouths, good numbers of crappies and some nice 25- to 33-inch pike. This gives an angler plenty of other options if the bronzebacks ever develop lockjaw.
Recent MDNR surveys confirm this quality fishery. Smallmouth catches are the highest they have ever been in Spider, largemouths are even more numerous and pike are doing well under a protected slot limit.
Spider Lake's shorelines are heavily wooded, and downed trees along rocky shorelines are prime fish locations. So are the lake's numerous rocky points. And offshore humps and reefs 8 to 20 feet deep are also productive. There is a good public landing on the northeast side of the lake.
BIG CORMORANT LAKE
Western Minnesota is off the radar screen for most smallmouth anglers, but there are some superb lakes and rivers in this part of the state. One is Big Cormorant Lake, west of Detroit Lakes in Becker County. This lake i
s not only big in size (at nearly 3,700 acres), but it also has a big bunch of smallies in it. A recent survey captured 120 smallmouth, the highest ever recorded for this lake and a much higher fish density than what is normally found in a smallmouth lake. Size structure is also good on Big Cormorant, with lots of fish in the 12- to 15-inch range and good percentage over 15 inches.
There are good boat landings on both the west and north sides of Big Cormorant. Summer water clarity can often be very high in this lake, so working deep shorelines and offshore humps and bars with jigs and deep-diving crankbaits is a good tactic during midday.
TEN MILE LAKE
Here's another western gem. Ten Mile Lake, south of Fergus Falls out in Ottertail County, has had a 21-inch minimum size regulation on it since 2001. This has really paid off. Before the protection, most fish were kept before reaching 15 inches; now nearly half the fishery is over the 15-inch mark.
Smallmouths can be found in the hard-bottomed areas of the lake, especially in the 8- to 15-foot depths. There are also large stands of bulrush on the south and west sides of the lake, and during early mornings some fish relate to these shallow, weedy areas.
There's a boat landing at the south end of the lake. Contact the Fergus Falls DNR at (218) 739-7576.
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The Mississippi downstream of Red Wing is a far larger and much different river than it is above the Twin Cities. The quiet upper river is relatively shallow and rocky, while the 125 miles from Red Wing to the Iowa border is a huge commercial waterway with a lock-and-dam system and large barges.
Surprisingly, this downstream portion of the Miss' also has some impressive smallmouth fishing. By targeting the right habitat, you'll find a lot of nice 11- to 14-inchers, plus a fair number of 15- to 17-inch bronzebacks. There isn't much natural rock, but there are miles of riprapped banks and hundreds of old wing dams to which the smallies relate. And because the lower river is so big, you can use a full-sized lake boat.
Wing dams were created long ago with massive quantities of rock to direct the river's flow into mid-channel. Nowadays, many wing dams have too much sand imbedded in them to hold fish, so keep moving until you find productive ones.
A few particularly good areas are around Diamond Bluff, Wabasha, La Crescent and Genoa, Wis. There are many boat landings along the river. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maps (fws.gov/Midwest/UpperMississippiRiver) show landings, dams, wing dams and other features. For tips on lodging, marinas, tackle shops and dining, try Lake City Tourism: (lakecity.org or 651-345-4123).
LITTLE FORK RIVER
The first 50 miles of this water, from Samuelson Park to Dentaybow, is an exceptionally remote stretch that requires wilderness camping and at least three days of canoe travel. However, the final 50 miles of river from Dentaybow Landing to the river's mouth is much easier to access, and day trips by small craft are possible. Big smallies and hefty muskies can both be caught.
This small river in north-central Minnesota is an overlooked treasure and a long ways from the lower Mississippi. Winding through the flat forestlands of Koochiching County, the Little Fork River offers 100 miles of little-known smallmouth water. The upper Little Fork is very challenging to fish due to its numerous shallow rapids. But starting at Samuelson Park near Rauch, the stream becomes deeper and rapids are limited. From here to the Little Fork's junction with the Rainy River 100 miles downstream, smallmouth and muskies are the primary species.
The Little Fork's fishing is best if it's been dry for at least a week, since runoff from thick clay soils cause the river to become very muddy after rains. The MDNR offers a free map of the Little Fork, which is available from local DNR offices and the central office in St Paul (1-888-646-6367). The closest town is International Falls.
OTTER TAIL RIVER
Here's another sleeper stream that offers excellent smallmouthing. The Ottertail River, way out west in Ottertail County, has become extraordinary smallmouth water. The species was first introduced 16 years ago, and since then, the fish have benefited from both catch-and-release regulations and habitat improvement. Now the canoe-sized Ottertail supports excellent numbers of 12- to 18-inch smallies.
Anglers have the MDNR to thank for this success story. Besides introducing the species to the stream, they've also worked on bank stabilization and placement of in-stream cover. Through their efforts, smallmouths are now well established from the Friberg Dam downstream to the Wilkin County line.
Shore fishing is possible right in Fergus Falls and below the Friberg and Lake Orwell dams. A canoe is best for reaching less-accessible sections of river. One good section is upstream of Dayton Lake Reservoir.
Here's a scenic canoe-sized stream in the heart of Southeast Minnesota's limestone bluff country. The Zumbro River from Zumbro Lake dam down to Millville, in Wabasha County, offers 25 miles of bronzebacks. The first 12 miles (from Zumbro Lake to the town of Zumbro Falls) has catch-and-release regulations and holds some fine smallies up to 18 inches. This section also has a surprising number of muskies, offering an exciting bonus catch.
Downstream of Zumbro Falls, the stream has more sand, but there are also many rocky outside bends with nice-sized fish. Canoes for float trips can be rented at Zumbro Falls. Wade fishing off Co. Rd. 11, which parallels the lower Zumbro, is also an effective way to fish. River fishing is ever changing and multi-faceted, and a good book can really help you advance your skills. One of the very best is my new one, River Smallmouth Fishing, available from Smallmouth Angler Press (www.smallmouthangler.com).